May 21, 2021

Empowering African Women Freelancers in the Global Gig Economy

Anie Akpe Nigerian American and founder of African Women in Technology, AWIT Creatives, and IBOM LLC connects women in their tech career.

Empowered with a computer and internet connection, freelancers are altering the global workforce, overturning corporate structures, and redefining how we work and live. 

In the U.S., where freelance income is almost 5% of GDP at nearly $1 trillion, perception is changing as freelancing is now a legitimate career path. By meeting the needs of a segment of the workforce, the gig economy grants professionals the flexibility to decide how and where they want to work.

In Africa, the growing freelance market, for the most part, is not rooted in choice; instead, a result of young graduates having a difficult time in the job market. Unable to find jobs that reflect their career aspirations, many young graduates are taking the initiative and creating their own opportunities. 

Currently, most of the companies and individuals hiring freelancers are from two continents. A recent study showed that freelancers reported 68% and 51% of their clients are in North America and Europe, respectively, while only 7% reported having clients in Africa. 

A continent filled with highly-skilled and motivated young professionals, Africans make up 10.1% of the world’s freelancers. To meet the demand, entrepreneurs are creating businesses that connect the globe to African talent. Anie Akepe, Nigerian born but New York-based, is leveraging the community she’s built across both continents to empower women with freelance opportunities. 

Founded in 2016, African Women in Technology, a product of IBOM LLC, is an event series that was born out of the desire to connect, educate, and empower women who are determined to advance their tech careers. The newly launched platform, AWIT Creatives, connects creative professionals to freelance opportunities. 

I spoke with Anie Akpe, Founder of IBOM LLC, about the passion that translated into creating AWIT, the importance of having women in tech, and the role of the diaspora in Africa’s development. 

How did your journey lead you to create African Women in Technology?

I spent most of my 25+ years in banking on the management side. However, 17 years ago, I moved to New York for a new job, and shortly after, my technology journey began. After a few months, I was getting ready to leave the bank because I felt like I wasn’t being challenged. To incentivize me to stay, they promoted me to a management position. As a manager, I wanted to use technology to help run the business because, at the time, everything was manual.

When I started my new role, we had approximately $150 – $200 million in our portfolio. My goal for that particular year was $50 million, and by implementing new systems, we were able to close $80 million. From that point on, until the time that I left, which was in June of last year, we continued to grow our portfolio, reaching $1.2 billion. I couldn’t have done that without having the right technology. It not only enhanced our process, but it also gave us better data to justify any decisions that we made.  

Progressing nicely in my career, I thought about how I could give back to the community. That’s how I launched IBOM LLC, the parent company of African Women in Technology, 10 years ago. It started with answering business questions and pushing the diaspora to use technology to advance their business. Then it evolved to hosting events here in New York City, and now we’re hosting conferences in Africa.

African Women in Technology started because I wanted to create something specifically for women. Initially, it was just an event-based organization to connect, educate, and empower women in their tech careers. It has since evolved into a place where women are congregating and creating. Although it’s great to have women in the tech space, it’s more important that women create products and solve problems. For women in our community, that means if you’re a data scientist that you consider all your experiences, and think about what you can build or what member of the community you could lend your expertise. 

Also, we want to showcase that African women are here and are doing amazing things. I believe that you’ve got to let people know what you can do because if you’re not your own publicist, who will be? What you’ll find is that people are either very public or very private. A lot of women within the tech space, especially a lot of African women, don’t advertise their experiences and skillsets. We want to empower then to use their own voice and also be a voice for the community.  

What specific void or opportunity did you discover that inspired AWIT Creatives? Why are you the one to address this problem?

Unemployment throughout Africa is rampant. Some students graduate with an engineering degree and don’t get jobs. I created AWIT Creatives because I know the women in our community are skilled. The only thing missing was opportunities, so we created a platform where businesses & individuals can find and hire them. We’re not the total solution in addressing the employment gaps, but a small piece.

Currently, most of the women are on sites like Freelancer and Fiver. Our community pushed us to build AWIT Creatives because many said they weren’t getting noticed on Fiverr due to the number of professionals. They wanted a platform where they knew people were looking to work with young women and girls in Africa. 

Our long term vision is to help our community of women land full-time jobs, but for right now, we’re tackling unemployment through freelance opportunities.

The world is in the midst of a tech revolution, and Africa is at the center. From your perspective, why is it important for women to be in tech? 

Any product created generally has the mindset of the people that created it. Technology is no different. You need a diversity of viewpoints. If everybody building the product thinks the same way, it won’t be long before you realize you left out a very important factor that only diversity would have afforded you the ability to see ahead of time. 

For example, if you’re building a product targeting women, you wouldn’t use a team of men to build the product, but it happens all the time. I’ve heard people say, I never thought about including women, which is a privilege not to. Consider how people often create solutions for Africa without involving Africans or attempting to understand the diversity within the continent. 

Right now, A.I. and Machine Learning programs are being created. Who’s developing them? What information are they gathering to build these systems? Although some of the data is just data when you create the final product, having diverse people will allow it to make a better impact on the community. 

Nonetheless, having women on the team, as I’ve learned through research, is invaluable because women are known to be great revenue generators, but more importantly, great thinkers. Also, women are the ones that determine 70% of how money is spent. So if that’s the case, why are you building products without having women on the team? 

How is AWIT equipping women with the essential tech skills? 

At our conferences, we train startups on how to pitch and discuss all the relevant topics in tech, including A.I., machine learning, health tech, agrotech, and more. Generally, our conferences, also open to men, are three-days but the last two have been five-days. So far, we’ve hosted conferences in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, and Uganda. This year we set a goal to have a conference in each of the countries in Africa over the next three years. 

We also want to be the center hub of information,  serve as the resource guide and the connector.

Being in New York City allows me to position myself to land sponsorships and partnerships because a lot of companies are U.S. or U.K. based, with offices in and around Africa. But to implement, I need to be in Africa. It allows me to know what else to create and keeps me connected to the community. To further establish our presence, we’re opening up an office in Kenya this year. 

Also, in Africa, it’s impossible to work as an island, so we do a lot of partnerships with local organizations. For example, to put on our last conference in Kenya, we partnered with over 30 different Kenyan organizations. By working together and pulling all these organizations under one umbrella, we can have more impact. 

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As a leader in tech in your own right, what are the keys to being successful in tech in Africa? 

I believe that the most successful innovations in technology have always been founded on people finding solutions. It sounds simple, but that’s really what makes a company successful. What problem are you really solving? 

There are many solutions to that one problem, and some will take off, and some won’t, but you keep trying because you’re a think tank. Once you create one solution, you can create others. 

I also believe that to advance; you have to continue with your training and development. If you’re not staying abreast of what’s happening, whether it’s through training or going to conferences, then you’ll be left behind. 

Continued learning and development ensure that you’re using the best technology for whatever problem you’re solving. Yes, cutting edge tech comes at a cost, but even if your product doesn’t have all the bells and whistles now, you still need to be aware of what the best version of your product is so you know where you’re going, what you need to learn, and who can help you get there.  

Built In Africa. What does that mean to you, and what is the role of the African Diaspora in building a sustainable continent? 

To me, the definition is two-fold. It’s Built In Africa and Built For Africa. Although I may not be in Africa similar to many of the well funded African fintech startups, I’m looking for ways to provide solutions for Africa. Yes, the products are getting built outside, but we’re building it for Africa, with Africa in mind. The goal is to expand and grow the continent collectively. 

The role of the diaspora, first and foremost, is to be successful in your field. For myself, success looked like building up my savings and advancing in my career. I believe in the analogy, “if your cup is full, then you’re better able to help someone else.”

You can’t help with a half-empty cup. Once you are successful, then go back and help others find their own success as you leverage your skills, experience, and knowledge. The community you came from needs them, and you’ll be that much more impactful when you’re actually in a position to do so. 

If you’re not there yet, that’s fine. Do what you can. Maybe it’s not time for you to build but to mentor. There are different things you can do until you’re in the position you want to be. Whether you’re mentoring, volunteering with an organization, or attending events and conferences to stay up to date. In the long run, learning and getting involved with what’s currently happening will help you make a more significant impact.

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